Talent: You Either Have It Or You Don't
For some, talent seems innate and success is effortless. For most others, however, the heights of creative success remains out of reach. So are we born talented or not?
It’s been raging for centuries; is creative talent innate, or does the environment cultivate it? Are we born with the necessary creative intelligence for success, or is it grown and developed through other people, the space in which we live, and our life experiences? Can we, in fact, shape our own creative genius?
The answer is more complex than we might expect, but it’s reasonable to assume that both play a part. It is true, I have found, that whatever favourable attributes we might be born with, nothing is more important for their full expression than how we apply ourselves to the daily work we undertake. According to David Scott Yeager & Carol Dweck’s work on Self Theories,1 a growth mindset represents the idea that our most basic abilities can be developed and that personal qualities like intellect and natural talent are merely the foundation. Sport, medicine, academia, business, art; the domain of enterprise is less important than the degree to which we allow ourselves to become immersed. Yet despite this, a stubborn belief exists in popular thought that genius is born, and you either have it or don’t.
I see it, particularly in sports, where young children are siloed based on their apparent ability, and it is from within these silos, that their talent and abilities grow or die. By virtue of grading, we tell them how good they are or not despite what they might think of their own ability. Some become determined to prove us wrong, but most accept without question our thought and belief about their ability—A, B, C, D grading becomes ingrained in their self-concept. What is not understood by the proponents of these grading methods is that they rob players, both girls and boys, of the ability to learn from and teach each other. As far as the mentors and teachers are implicitly concerned, it is they who have the knowledge that must be imparted to the student or player. Children do not possess the ability to teach each other; if they do, that ability weighs much less in significance than the mentors’. The system allows too many children slip through the net, and we later wonder where all the talent has gone.
You would think with decades of psychological research into talent, ability, genius, intelligence and so on, that we might have learned something, that findings would have found their way through the thick, so far impenetrable wall that surrounds popular consciousness. Well, given what I see in the realms of business and sport on a regular basis, apparently not.
So what does research have to say about genius, talent, intelligence and so on?
Lewis Terman on Genius
In 1916, Professor Lewis M. Terman at Stanford University, set out to answer the question; is genius born or made? He took an IQ test created by French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 19052 and formulated the Stanford-Binet Intelligence test3. The Stanford-Binet test was designed to examine intelligence through five factors of cognitive ability. These include fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual-spatial processing, and working memory. The test measures both verbal and nonverbal responses and each of the five factors is weighted accordingly. The combined score is then reduced to a ratio known commonly as the intelligence quotient, or IQ.
Terman used the test to examine intelligence levels in a large sample of US children and continued to track their journey into adulthood. He wanted to see if those who scored highly on IQ would develop into adult geniuses. He selected the cream of the crop, which comprised 1528 children, both boys and girls around eleven years of age. According to the measure, they represented the brightest of those tested, with an average IQ of 151. The “brightest” of them had IQs of 177 to 200 on the scale. As the children developed through adolescence and into adulthood, Terman’s team continually tested and tracked them, and the results were published in the five-volume Genetic Studies of Genius4.
A Note On The Origins of IQ Test
Paris, 1904, and La Société Libre pour l'Etude Psychologique de l'Enfant was called upon by the French government to appoint a commission on the education of children. The commission was to create a mechanism for identifying students in need of alternative education. Alfred Binet and his understudy, Theodore Simon, created what subsequently became known as the Binet-Simon Scale of intelligence. It comprised various tasks considered representative of typical children's abilities at various ages and became the foundation for the measure of intelligence. Despite the popular understanding of IQ tests, Binet claimed that his scale did not measure intelligence per se but only enabled the classification of a hierarchy of intellectual qualities. Binet said of his scale, "This scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore, cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured, but are, on the contrary, a classification, a hierarchy among diverse intelligences; and for the necessities of practice this classification is equivalent to a measure." Binet was drawing attention to the fact that his scale was unlike a scale used to measure distinct quantities like length and weight. Instead, he highlighted the subtle and complex nature of sensations and cognitive appraisal. We are human, after all, not mechanisms. But unfortunately, this fact may have become lost in the Darwinian furore of the time.
Remarkably, Terman’s study found that none of the children assessed had achieved eminence in their field of work. Of the 1528 children who were tested by Terman’s team from 1916 to 1959, none reached what we can refer to as the pinnacle of human achievement. Instead, they went on to occupy everyday roles in society, such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, and so on. Furthermore, many of the initial samples didn’t achieve what we would refer to as success in even a moderate capacity. However, two members of the study went on to become professors at Stanford, but as Dean Keith Simonton suggests in his book The Genius Checklist, they were hardly household names.
Interestingly, the greatest contemporary scientific minds had IQ levels below what we would call genius levels. For example, renowned physicist Richard Feynman, and co-discoverers of DNA James Watson and physicist William Shockley all had relatively low IQs (in the 120s). Remarkably, Watson and Shockley were tested by Terman’s team but didn’t make the cut, and ironically, they were two of the greatest minds of the 20th Century.
“Some recent philosophers seem to have given their moral approval to these deplorable verdicts that affirm that the intelligence of an individual is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be augmented. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we will try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing." - Alfred Binet, Les idées modernes sur les enfants, 19095
The Effect of Persistence
The above example implies that the badge of creative genius is reserved for those who become well-known. It also implies that creative geniuses don’t exist in ordinary everyday society. Personally, I don’t assign with that idea. As far as I am concerned, being well-known or worldly famous for your creative output is not a prerequisite for the title of genius. In fact, it’s more likely that creative output can be marred by worldly recognition than enhanced. Before notoriety, and even in the face of it, something else is required to bring about genius-level work.
The correlation between IQ and creative genius is low to middling. High achievers can have lower than average IQs, and those with supremely high IQs can disappear into obscurity. There are other factors at work, and Dean Keith Simonton says that personality and persistence are two that matter a lot. A graduate on Terman’s team, Catherine Cox, investigated the relationship between IQ and creative success in these terms and found that motivational traits were critical, with persistence proving to be a profoundly influencing factor.
Cox reported t“High, but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence”.
I have seen this so many times in business and sport; those who are less gifted technically, working harder than everyone else, tend to achieve better results over the long term. Persistence says to me that when the chips are down, this person who works their ass off will help the team deliver a result under pressure over that of others with the skills but lack the energy and intent to execute.
Determination and persistence, or what would in today’s terms, be known as ‘grit’, matters so much more than skill. After all, skills can be developed with practice. As the psychologist and author Anders Ericsson says in his book Peak6;
“So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.”
Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, agrees. In her 30 years of research and practice, she and her colleagues argue that persistence is a key component of high-level creative output and performance. Dweck’s research shows that children who are praised for their intelligence or talents are not more motivated to learn. Instead, they are inclined to shy away from challenges and are less resilient in the face of difficulty. When children are praised for their process—hard work, strategies, focus, persistence—then they remain motivated to learn. They’re more likely to take on challenges and thrive in the face of difficulty.
So we can see that the environment plays a critical role in creative output. But we must realise that the height of creative expression, genius-level expertise, and so on are the result of a constellation of factors, some of which are outside our knowledge and understanding. Genetic inheritance, environmental conditions, psychological state, biological factors, personal history and self-application, are but a few. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to suggest that there are too many variables at work for us to predict outcomes accurately.
So what’s our conscious role in all of this?
I believe our only job is to identify that thing that turns us on and spend as much time as possible doing it. That activity must be positively oriented, however. In other words, we must be in a good place emotionally and psychologically before undertaking the work. We must be coachable—open and willing to try new things, experiment, and be ok with getting it wrong. Mistakes are part of learning, and nobody arrives here with all the knowledge and skill to succeed. Commanding your own work is an ongoing process, and when we are brave enough to get things wrong, there is the opportunity to exceed our expectations and that of others. In this sense, talent is an objective assessment and has nothing to do with your daily work.
The Sunday Letters Journal is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.
Binet, A., & Simon, T. (1948). The development of the Binet-Simon Scale, 1905-1908.
Terman, L. M. (1925). The measurement of intelligence: An explanation of and a complete guide for the use of the Stanford revision and extension of the Binet-Simon intelligence scale. Harrap.
Holahan, C. K., Sears, R. R., & Cronbach, L. J. (1995). The gifted group in later maturity. Stanford University Press.
Binet, A. (2010). Les idées modernes sur les enfants. Les idées modernes sur les enfants, 1-346.
Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak (1st ed.). London: 2017.